Report on ACCEPT Annual Public Lecture and Discussion

30 April 1993, Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College, Dublin

By Mary Montaut

The subject of this year’s ACCEPT lecture was highly topical: “Sexual Abuse: Victim and Offender Perspectives” and, as one would have expected, the hall was packed. The first part of the evening comprised a lecture from ‘Deirdre Walsh: “Core Elements, Adult Legacy, Care and Treatment of Victims”. She openly challenged the audience to realize how much of what she would say we had to defend ourselves against hearing, to check how often we would try to mitigate what she was saying or to deny it in some way. For example, we might let our horror prevent us from facing the facts, or simply deny they were facts, or get carried away by extreme punitiveness. She outlined briefly the reasons why incest has been so little studied until recently, describing it as a “universal taboo” which has only begun to be examined since the Child Protection Movement (Kempe) and the Women’s Liberation Movement of the last 60s. She felt that the recent work of such authoritative figures as Finkelhor, Russell, Van der Kolk and Gelinas made it unlikely that it could ever be swept under the carpet again.

She identified “what is being done/has been done to children”, then went on to describe the Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome which sufferers may experience, leading them ultimately out of denial and into therapy. She told us positively that “abuse can be healed fully and totally”.

She then spoke about the effects of abuse, such as damage to self esteem and trust, emotional pain which may not be felt for years, alienation/confusion around the body and sexuality and core damage to the sense of personal autonomy, often resulting in eating disorders. She outlined the four-stage model for recovery in therapy, from breaking through the defensive silence, working through the feelings, to integration and healing which may involve confrontation and forgiveness, to the ultimate challenge of accepting that they can move on and be free of the abuse.

In contrast with this victim-orientated lecture, Ray Wyre spoke about the offenders. His pioneering work at the Gracewell Institute in Birmingham provided him with some startling material, including extracts from taped interviews with offenders. No amount of description could have made such an impact as these voices. The audience was riveted.

Ray began by saying that it worried him that we “departmentalize” abuse. For him, all forms of abuse can be interchangeable. Furthermore, it is not the degree of abuse (violence etc.) which makes it so serious, but the whole psychological context in which it takes place. At bottom the abuse is one of power. “Abuse is not an incident – it’s a relationship”, he challenged us to hear, and went on to point out that sexual abuse is not “an extension of our sexuality”.

He described what happens with the legal (adversarial) system, where, an offender will, of course, try to protect himself, be fearful and hence seductive, or intimidating, or devious when questioned about his actions. In this system, there is no investment for being honest and so, if the accused chooses to remain silent or just to deny the offence, he is unlikely to be convicted. At the very least he is likely to be excusing, justifying himself, minimizing the offence, normalizing it (as if everybody could do it), denying his responsibility and trying to blame his victim. The men who Ray deals with, he pointed out “don’t come in and tell me everything”. Yet his job is to gather as much real information as possible, so that people may be protected from these offences.

Ray explained that the abuses do not just come out of the blue. They are part of a pattern of behaviour which includes possibly some or all of the following: predisposition, fantasy, distorted thinking and beliefs, overcoming internal inhibitors, targeting the victim, initiating contact, overcoming external inhibitors and the victim’s resistance, interpreting the victim’s behaviour (e.g. “they like it”), secondary fantasy and secondary distorted thinking followed by re-targeting and ending. “Monsters don’t get close to children” he told his audience, “nice men do”.

He went on to explain and illustrate the pattern listed above and played us tapes of offenders speaking which brought home clearly exactly what he meant by the various stages of the pattern. The effect was indescribably powerful. There was a sense that we were being taken into Ray’s work with him – our ability to keep the confidences of these men implicitly trusted – for a moment allowed to witness the actual process. Ray reminded us “never ask whether there are other victims, of course there are. Everyone in the situation is a victim, all the rest of the family become secondary victims of the abuse because the abuser has to control the external environment”. The horrific sense of pain and distress spreading like rings in a pond worked its way out to the audience as Ray described the cleverest abusers who make the child initiate the abuse, the man who would give the child 50p for touching his leg, for instance. The secrecy, threats and bribes were all there for us to witness.

Ray explained that precise information on exactly what has been done by the abuser had to be obtained in order to free the victims, who may never otherwise be able to erase or overcome phobias, obsessions etc., which have their origins in the actual details of the abuse. He said that, legally, this information was very difficult to obtain and that the way forward must be to treat, not just to punish, offenders in order to make the world a safer place.